Evolutionary creation and scientistic agnosticism

A long and rancorous thread has, I hope, begun to peter out at BioLogos. I referred to it in an earlier post, written when it was merely controversial. The bitterness masks the fact that, hidden deep, some propositions were actually given some kind of answer, though in typical BioLogos fashion (sad to say) it’s taken 140+ posts, none by staff members, to slug out what could have been answered amicably in about seven. Let me try and summarise what I think is the actual reasoning, gleaned from a number of people’s possibly varying positions.

Q: Does not the proposed mechanism of evolution, involving apparently random processes, preclude God’s guidance of it, and especially in relation to determining the form of mankind?

A1: Consider the immune system, which operates by a hypermutation process involving apparently random mutations. Yet one may purposefully vaccinate ones children, knowing that the system will reliably provide immunity against the diseases one targets. Analogously, one might decide that God could equally use random processes in a targeted way (unstated premise: random is being used here as “unpredictable”, not only to humans but to God).

A2: The immune system may be taken as a proxy for the entire evolutionary process, involving many random processes, which in a similar way could be used by God for targeting specific outcomes. Specifically, variation/natural selection are so constrained that given the right genetic material, a specific environment might produce the same outcome (unstated premise: we assume here the convergent evolution of Conway-Morris over the non-replicable model of Stephen Gould).

Q: Assuming this to be true, you have only said that God’s direction is not precluded by such considerations: it is this purposeful control, more than the obstacle of “randomness” to it per se, that underlies the original question. Can you, and many other TE’s, not state unequivocally that God does intend and order such outcomes?

A: No, because none of us knows he does so (unstated qualification – I pass over the fact that some named by the questioner vehemently assert he does not). We therefore do not claim that God does not direct evolution, but that evidence for it is lacking.

Q: Your response of “I don’t know” is not good enough.

A: Why not? It’s the conclusion that drives the seeking of new knowledge.


Antibodies about their business

In the past I’ve written much about the silence of TEs on divine oversight being, possibly, based on private denial. But an alternative, these exchanges suggest, might be private agnosticism. Now, as ever it is dangerous to generalise from this one plainly agnostic conclusion about God’s directive oversight of evolution to other TEs. However it is reminiscent of Roman Catholic blogger Crude’s exchange with Darrel Falk early in 2012. Crude’s question was simple and honest:

In your view, is evolution an entirely unguided process? Or was it guided by God, even if not in a way science is capable of detecting? Atheists … believe that evolution is a process which accomplishes what it does without guidance or input from any divine mind – the outcomes being neither foreseen or preordained. Do you disagree with that view, and if so, how?

Omitting, as above, a long train of aimless conversation, the heart of the reply was:

I … want to be clear that God delights in all of creation. You push for an answer that takes it further than that, by asking a significant philosophical and theological question I am not qualified to address. Your question needs to be answered by a philosopher not by me, a biologist.

The clear conclusion from such answers is that since science, whilst it cannot preclude God’s oversight of evolution (even should that include random processes), shows no evidence of it, so we cannot draw a conclusion. It seems to me that such a line or argumentation is clearly nothing but a form of scientism. What do I mean?

Scientism, a term in use for 140 years, has a rather flexible meaning (though not as much as “evolution” does!). But BioLogos‘ own FAQ, distancing itself from the concept, says:

Historian Richard G. Olson defines scientism as “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern.” 2 But this formulation is so broad as to render it virtually useless. Philosopher Tom Sorell offers a more precise definition: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” 3 MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson offers a closely related version, but more extreme: “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” 4 The latter two definitions are far more precise and will better help us evaluate scientism’s merit.

Many writers, though, distinguish between “hard” and “soft” scientism. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to source the origin of this division, but one description relevant to matters of God is this:

There are two extremes: hard scientism and soft scientism. Hard scientism believes that science alone will solve nearly all human problems or science will eventually explain or describe everything. If a belief isn’t “scientific”, then it’s meaningless.
Soft scientism says that theological statements must be subjected to scientific scrutiny in order to have any intellectual credibility.

Now “God directed the creation of all things” is a theological statement, and one attested in Scripture and the tradition more strongly than almost any other. If the biblical evidence does not tip the scales from agnosticism, it being granted for argument’s sake that the evidence of science is equivocal, then science is being privileged above Scripture, tradition (and also philosophy and metaphysics) as a source of knowledge. Therefore, if evolutionary creation is the belief that God created through evolution, this is a different position – which seems to me to warrant the descriptive term (soft) scientistic agnosticism.

I should add here that the equivocal witness of biology is no more than a subjective opinion. Many scientists down the years hold it to offer overwhelming evidence of God’s wisdom and power. There is, indeed, something of a Transatlantic cultural bias here – I’ve just read Prof Sam Berry’s soon-to-be-published John Stott Lecture on the history of evolutionary theory and Evangelicalism in Britain, which paints a picture of a very much more orthodox synthesis than BioLogos seems to offer. Yet even in the US scientists like David L Wilcox hold firmly to a guided evolution, with no fewer credentials than those on the BioLogos combox. The difference is theological, not scientific.

Returning to scientistic agnosticism, The question necessarily arises as to whether “seeking of new knowledge” in the scientific field has any chance of shifting the situation to one in which there is evidence for God’s direction? Is it even theoretically possible? Will fearful enquirers approaching disdainful scientists ever be told anything other than “Nope, still no evidence for God – but plenty of egregious errors and random events, so draw your own conclusion.” The answer is “No.” Given the criteria, scientistic agnosticism is the only possible position for such people. Why?

Return with me (mentally, at least) to my previous post Jimi Hendrix on Aristotelian causation. Since Bacon and Descartes, science has taken the conscious decision to limit itself definitionally to the study of material efficient causation. Now, in classical Christian philosophy, God himself is the initial efficient cause of every action – but such causation is spiritual, not material, and so is completely unobservable. If that is so even in miracles (no process is investigable: the water just appears as wine – Christ is seen to be risen and alive), how much more is it so in nature, where secondary, created, causes operate? In whatever mysterious way God effects the fall of each particular sparrow to the ground, you and I will see only a child with an airgun, or a sparrowhawk, or the fatal disease in the tissue samples we take. Such is the doctrine of secondary causation.

The previous article dealt mainly with two other kinds of causation: final and formal. In my view, imminent final causation (ie the functions and purposes built into nature – the eye intended for sight, or the seeking of an animal for food), though ostensibly ignored by science, is actually indispensible to any kind of theory. But though imminent final causation points indirectly to the existence of a disposing God, it is not scientific evidence for it. The external final purposes of God – why he chose for aardvarks or zooplankton or biologists to exist at all – are not only necessarily speculative, but they are specifically excluded from the scientific method.

Formal causes, I have argued in the previous article, may well map to the increasingly important field of information. And form/information is completely visible in nature, when one looks at the anatomy of a mole or the sequence of a DNA molecule or of epigenetic tags. But we only see form (information itself being immaterial) because it is instantiated in matter, and so it must be, by the scientist who has excluded formal causation a priori, reduced to its efficent causation, so that the latter is all that is counted as evidence.

Concretely, consider the conventional Darwinian mechanisms in Answer A2 at the start of this piece. The DNA of organism X has an information content, which can be deduced (or in theory, one day, even observed) to come about circuitously by this gene duplication and that de novo formation of an exon by neutral mutation. What else could there be to observe? There was bound to be an efficient cause, if it was a natural event. There was also bound to be a material cause, because DNA is a material. And even if evolution were a sequence of miracles it would still just be observed as a change of sequence. The only distinguishing feature in that case would be that the efficient causation would be inexplicable, that is, indistinguishable from chance – which is by definition not a cause, but ignorance of a cause. Oh, wait a minute – we’d then be looking at a process that appeared to involve randomness, wouldn’t we?

Regarding the idea that evidence from efficient causes might point away from God’s direction, rather than being strictly neutral, British Christian ornithologist and writer on evolution David Lack, way back in the 1950s, said:

[A]lthough on theological grounds the ordering of the animal creation may to some persons seem surprising, man is surely unqualified to judge whether this ordering is in any way evil, or contrary to divine plan.

Theological grounds are not, as we have seen, scientific grounds.

So scientistic agnosticism, as such, is incapable of resolving to faith because, considering only material efficient causes, it will only ever see material efficient causes. Only when other epistemological avenues are admitted to be more valid than the scientific in such a question will the agnostic allow herself to accept the testimony of Scripture, the reasoning of philosophy or the innate God-given sense of his hand in nature and say, “I know that God directed evolution, because he is the Creator of all things.”

It shouldn’t really be that hard for an Evangelical Christian to take that step, I would have thought. After all, most churches at least pay lip service those introductory words of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

But then science must remain agnostic about things invisible, mustn’t it?


The power of random

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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28 Responses to Evolutionary creation and scientistic agnosticism

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


    Herre are my two cents (if worth that much). Of course, there will never be a scientific proof of God’s creation or continuing involvement, for the reasons you state. In physics, the fine tuning of the physical constants is as close as can come, and such phenomena are called “pointers” not evidence. I think it would be quite nice, if such pointers were to be found in biology. The goal is not to prove anything, but to furnish Christians who love science with a way to reconcile their faith with their science, and not feel any sense of contradiction or unease.

    For many TEs, this is provided by the minimal (if any) intervention model that seems to come from Biologos. For others (like me and you etc.) this isnt quite enough. And yet, I think we ARE on the verge of finding pointers to God’s continuing work in evolution, and that is coming from biologists. I had the good fortune on Wednesday to hear a brilliant seminar by Susan Rosenberg, one of the leaders in the field of Stress induced mutations, and her talk was all about a new model for evolution, sounding almost like James Shapiro. These folks arent theists, but their work is about to dismantle the Neo Darwinian synthesis and replace the current theory of slow random mutational change with a mechanism that depends on environmental stress and rapid dramatic evolutionary leaps. It is no longer sustainable to claim that teleology doesnt belong in evolution. The science is moving forward, and to my mind it is moving (just as cosmology did) right back to God the Creator

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Funnily enough I have a post on that in preparation, Sy – sometime next week, maybe.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Sy – one further point. As you say, cosmic fine tuning cannot be proof of God: in terms of my article, it’s the observation of formal causation. That being so, it is beyond the explanations of scientific material efficient causation – or if those particular constants were ever explained, there would be some other fine tuned elements behind them – an infinite regression is not possible.

        But whilst not demonstrable evidence for God, fine tuning enforces a choice between God (who in classical theism, as opposed to theistic personalism) is the Being who requires and allows no explanation: or the Multiverse, which is a form of infinite regression, a multiplication of entities, each requiring explanation, besides being unlikely ever to be demonstrable. Additionally the multiverse itself requires fine tuning in order to generate the differences necessary to produce our cosmos.

        It is the choice between a Necessary Being and a brute fact, which in my view is not an evenly-loaded choice.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Sy and Jon,

      People who are empowered by a desire for the truth will inevitably accept advances in any branch of science. I am also encouraged by the views of people in other areas, such as sociology, who are not hung up on neo-Darwinian pretentions, but are simply motivated by a desire for the truth on their subject matter.

      For those who believe that God is the Creator, this desire for what is true is always welcomed; if I may add to this, I am equally impressed by scientist who do not believe, but are equally committed to seek what is true. I guess there is also something of the Gospel in this remark.

  2. Lou Jost says:

    “…Science has taken the conscious decision to limit itself definitionally to the study of material efficient causation.” Again I’ll insist that science is not limited by definition. It is opportunist, and if there was some real explanatory advantage to be gained by it, science would gladly incorporate final causes.

    You and Sy keep claiming that the testimony of scripture should be admitted as a way of gaining knowledge. This is the elephant in the room. There is no justification for taking this particular set of legends as a source of “revealed” knowledge, and there is abundant evidence to reject it as such a source. I realize that you and Sy, and most of the readers of your blog, have made a commitment to the opposite conclusion, and as Sy has said in earlier comments, nothing at all could change his mind about this, but it is something that needs defense. On the face of it the notion is more incredible than any of the evolutionary improbabilities you complain about.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Again I’ll insist that science is not limited by definition.

    And again I’ll insist that as soon as science considers final or formal causality it is not doing science. The very fact that you’ve repeatedly asked for evidence of religious truth – implying thereby a demonstrable and repeatable cause and effect sequence – shows that to be so. What “science” is usually doing, in skeptical hands, is trying to reduce final and formal causes to material efficient causes, failing (inevitably) and then declaring those categories to be proved invalid.

    Testimony is evidence. Pure reason is evidence. Internal conviction is evidence. Theological consistency is evidence. Moral persuasion is evidence. Personal encounter is evidence. Even collective tradition is evidence. Those truths are defended exhaustively by all kinds of people, such as leading philosophers like Alvin Plantinga.

    And intelligent guys like William Lane-Craig or C S Lewis make apologetics their full-time business, to whom I refer you for cosmological and other arguments for God, or for the trustworthiness of the Bible.

    But that’s not what I’m about either on this blog, or in this column. My point here is that those who have made already a commitment to faith in Christ have, by so doing, necessarily admitted other warrants for their belief than scientific evidence, which is by its very remit incapable of providing it. If they attempt to use science to assess God’s oversight of evolution, they’re trying to play a tune on a plate of pizza.

    • Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

      Beautifully stated, Jon. Thanks.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Beautifully stated but wrong. Evidence for religious truth does not have to consist of repeatable cause-and-effect chains. Those are unwarranted misreadings of what I have been saying. I meant exactly what I said: “if there was some real explanatory advantage to be gained by it, science would gladly incorporate final causes.” We don’t need a cause-and-effect chain. We only need genuine explanatory power.

      Evidence DOES include all the things you mentioned. But that doesn’t mean it must always to be taken at face value, as you and Sy seem to do. There are lots of personal experiences, testimonies, and traditions which lead to fact-claimsthat are wildly incorrect (as I tried to point out in my alien-abduction response to Sy’s “Surprise” post). Rational people test evidence, and one way to do that is to draw conclusions from the evidence and test those conclusions. If your evidence led you to correctly identify some final causes, or some other aspect overlooked by scientists, this should give you a leg up in our understanding of the universe. But as your past responses to me show, you and Sy seem to be horrified at the idea of drawing any specific observable predictions from your conclusions. You prefer to claim understanding without actually trying to test that understanding.

      It is hard to believe you would recommend Craig for good apologetic arguments…

      But of course it is your blog, and if you don’t want to examine the foundation of all your arguments, nobody (least of all me) has the right to complain.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        “The eye is intended for seeing” – There, that is a final cause with great explanatory power. It explains every functioning eye in the entire animal kingdom.

        What doesn’t it explain? Well, the scientific answer would seem to be, “How it got there.” In other words, the cause and effect chain that might be observed. Which you said wasn’t science’s only concern. But what can science, in principle, test other than material cause and effect? What does “predictable” in science mean if not “if I do A, it will result in B”? (specific answers required to last two, please).

        But one could equally turn the thing on its head, and describe the cause and effect chain for the formation of the eye. What doesn’t that explain? “What it’s for.”

        Your assumption is that final causation cannot be shown to exist, and is therefore an act of faith. But as Hume showed a long time ago, cause and effect too can only be known by the association of two observed events on repeated occasions: their causal connection is not necessary, but must be taken on faith.

        Accordingly, you cannot ever know that what you deem to be cause and effect is a sufficient explanation – merely that they always (so far) have appeared together. If an invisible entity were always necessarily involved – say, the interposition of dark energy, or of God’s final or formal causation – then you would have applied Occams’ razor quite inappropriately if you excluded them. As indeed everyone did in explaining that things fell by an innate desire to reach the earth, until the invisible force of gravity was postulated.

        God in classical philosophy and theology is the first efficient cause of every event. But he is by nature invisible, and therefore all his primary efficient causation is also invisible, and the evidence of efficient causation only becomes available through secondary causes. And as Hume showed, the only way they are known to be causal is empirically, by regular association – necessity cannot be proven by science (unless you’d like to be the first to show that science can provide evidence for necessary causation – a prize awaits you).

        There are lots of personal experiences, testimonies, and traditions which lead to fact-claims that are wildly incorrect

        And that is why they are subjected to appropriate checks, which are not of the same nature as judging cause and effect – predictability is inappropriate in testimony. Reproducibility is not appropriate in personal experience.

        So if Christ’s testimony that I am a sinner awakens an inner conviction that it is true; and if the message that faith in him brings forgiveness and peace is borne out by experience; and if one meets thousands of others with the same experience, and reads of others over 2000 years saying the same thing: and if one sees ones own and all those other thousands of lives changed, and continuing to find rest in Christ: and if that accords with philosophical reasoning on the nature of evil, or the necessity of a supremely good, rational Being: and if ones daily experience of the world over half a century confirms that view of reality, and study of the Bible over that same time rings increasingly true to ones human experience: and if one finds fruitless lives being turned to useful ones, and hopeless sufferers rendered joyful on their very deathbed (remember I was a doctor for my entire career): and all the whilst other beliefs one had prove to be groundless and disappointing…

        … then demands to provide testable evidence are just meaningless, or even laughable.

        “Science is not limited by definition.”
        Tosh. I’ve never read a scientific paper that could give me the knowledge of beauty that a Stan Getz solo can give. I predict that no scientific institution will ever start giving saxophone lessons to enable “opportunist science” to expand its knowledge into that, sublime, area. Neither was the biology lab I worked in ever tempted to broaden its remit to “self-knowledge” and introduce meditation sessions.

        “If your evidence led you to correctly identify some final causes, or some other aspect overlooked by scientists, this should give you a leg up in our understanding of the universe.”
        OK. I understand, in Christ, why the universe was made, how God wants me to live in it, and how to gain eternal life when it passes away and how to overcome death. That is a leg-up and a half in understanding, which of course is shared by many scientists including Sy and GD, but not as scientists.

        As scientists they understand material efficient causes, which as a function of the created order are available to all scientists … provide, of course, they assume what the existence of God entails regarding the intelligibility and order of the cosmos, the truthfulness of reason and perception, the reality of efficient causation and the moral requirements of truthfulness in doing science. Without those science is hamstrung.

        • Lou Jost says:

          You are again making the same assertion about my belief that I just denied: “Your assumption is that final causation cannot be shown to exist, and is therefore an act of faith.” Where do I ASSUME this? I have repeatedly said that there could in principle be evidence for final causes. In fact in my physics days I played with models where final causation (in the form of future boundary conditions) was real. The problem is that our world doesn’t seem to be that way. It is NOT ruled out by definition!!!!!

          To say that the eye is intended for seeing is a useful shorthand with no additional explanatory power than the local cause-and-effect explanation. But it didn’t have to be that way. If there was real teleological causation in the evolution of the eye as an organ for seeing, we might expect to see a more direct route to it, with fewer dead ends and suboptimal solutions. If we knew enough, we could in principle detect teleology by comparison of the actual evolutionary path with the kinds of paths expected by non-teleological random walks.

          “…One could equally turn the thing on its head, and describe the cause and effect chain for the formation of the eye. What doesn’t that explain? “What it’s for.””

          That’s not true. The cause and effect chain tells us exactly what it is “for”.

          “And that is why they are subjected to appropriate checks, which are not of the same nature as judging cause and effect – predictability is inappropriate in testimony. Reproducibility is not appropriate in personal experience.”

          Another straw man or misreading. I never demanded that personal experiences be reproducible. I demanded that their truth-claims be testable before they are attributed to revelation.

          You claim that because Christian beliefs change (some) lives for the better, therefore these beliefs are true, and we don’t need any additional evidence for the truth-claims underlying these beliefs. But the same would be said by a Muslim about his very different but also life-changing truth-claims, or by a Hindu, or even by an alien abductee. The psychological effects of these beliefs are not evidence for the truth of their claims. I don’t understand how you can sometimes write sophisticated philosophical arguments when criticizing scientists, while from the same pen you can write such fallacies to justify your own beliefs.

          Your paragraph starting “Tosh” is bizarre. First of all, the subjective experience of beauty, or meditation, is something that can be studied by science. But my claim was that science does not self-limit the kinds of explanations it can give. It is easy to imagine worlds in which the idea of gods would have explanatory power beyond naturalistic explanations. For example, if intercessionary prayer really worked when certain gods were addressed, then it would be scientific to include god in our explanations. This is not ruled out by definition.

          You end your comment with another false statement often made by religious people, that science is hamstrung without god-myths. First, god-myths only give the illusion of explaining the order and intelligibility of the cosmos. They amount to “explanation by fiat”. Second, science most certainly does not rely on the truthfulness of perception, cosmic order etc. Science does the opposite. The march of physics has shown more and more how our perceptions, including seemingly basic ones like the independent existence of time and space, are deeply mistaken. And our belief in order is empirical, and order is not universal; indeed, chaos and chance have gained in importance over mechanical clock worldviews in the last century or so.

        • Avatar photo GD says:


          I admire your patience in these type of discussions, but I inevitably go back to the HUGE obstacle that cannot be surmounted – how can a reasonable discussion be undertaken between two people who begin with a VERY clear different belief (and/or non-belief) systems.

          I remember a comment by physics and chemist colleagues when they took the trouble to read my unfinished poem – one I know is a devout atheist, the other perhaps not so devout – their comment was, “but gd, that subject is derived from revelation!” The implication is obvious – did I claim a personal revelation and my book was the result. But the remark also shows they possess insights into religion, and their remark was thus insightful without leading to arguments about physics of chemistry. (I did not claim a personal encounter with God, but I did point out to them the solid foundation provide by Orthodox Christianity).

          Thus I again state my own bewilderment – how can people debate from such two contradictory positions as (1) My belief and faith is this… therefore…, and (2) I reject that belief and faith, and therefore… I think…?

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


            You’re right, but I continue (for the moment) for the sake of onlookers, though it’s a distraction from the work in hand. But the cognitive mismatch is obvious – I talk about the knowledge that comes from beauty – and Lou immediately translates it to the objective study of beauty, as if they were comparable. Such an argument suggests blindness, if only intellectual blindness to ones own human sense of beauty. Somehow I doubt that Lou lacks that source of knowledge, but his scientism has blinded him to its importance and irreducibility to objective causes.


            You say that “the eye is for seeing” is no more useful than the cause and effect explanation, and talk about dead ends and suboptimal solutions.

            But as far as I’m aware the cause and effect pathway of the camera eye has been entirely reconstructed from the final cause, “we find eyes that are for seeing”, since the entire biosphere, living or fossil, gives no examples of evidence of not-yet-eyes-for-seeing, whether that be in vertebrates, arthropods or molluscs. Hence the just-so stories about light sensitive pits at whatever.

            If we ever did find a circuitous pathway including eyes adapted from hearing organs, secretory organs or tentacles (and the track record so far says we won’t), we would still be wrong to deny that “eyes are for seeing.”

            The “suboptimal” phrase is the Achilles heel of the rest of your argument. The subjective judgement, that the cause and effect pathway of any particular function doesn’t take the path you consider most direct, is not scientific but merely aesthetic, unless in your wisdom you have deduced every final cause along the way correctly.

            In terms of the “predictions” of specific religions, the God of Israel proclaims himself as not taking the routes we would take to his aims: he has Joseph sold into slavery and imprisoned, rather than replying to a job-ad in Pharaoh’s court and taking the bus: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for salvation.”

            He boasts of making the ostrich foolish (sub-optimal intelligence) – and what’s more refuses to explain why, to show that humans shouldn’t presume to know everything about his purposes. If that predicts anything about science, it is that there are many more instances of the same hidden providence.

            That was millennia before anybody started talking about badly designed retinae – or before others started refuting the charge, no more or less subjectively, but taking more evidence into account.

            Maybe we should unpack your recurrent use of the word “explanation”. You write as if it means the same as “understanding”, but it doesn’t: it’s only the beginning of understanding, and in some cases even a substitute for understanding.

            • Lou Jost says:

              Jon, how is the experience of beauty (or anger, or tiredness) “knowledge”?

              “Hence the just-so stories about light sensitive pits at whatever.”
              Not sure what your point is here. There are all kinds of “eyes” in animals and plants, including many that are not homologous to the vertebrate eye. Even some vertebrates have multiple “eyes”; eg a pit viper with its infrared detectors.

              I never denied eyes are “for seeing”. I denied the implication of teleological causation.

              “…The God of Israel proclaims himself as not taking the routes we would take to his aims…”

              That’s the “get out of jail free” card that you and Sy always play whenever I try to get you to draw empirical conclusions from your beliefs. If you really believe that, then ANYTHING AT ALL is consistent with your idea of god, and you have effectively insulated your god from any empirical refutation. Yet you still do make empirical claims on this blog based on your religious beliefs, so I still hope that some day you will make testable empirical predictions from your beliefs.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

                “Empirical” is OK, Lou – but you have to do better than a subjective judgement on whether things are being done in the way you personally consider most efficient.

                That isn’t science.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Science is all about drawing out the empirical consequences of hypotheses. I agree that I shouldn’t be the one who has to draw out the empirical consequences of your own beliefs. You should be doing that. But you and Sy are reluctant to do it, so I have to do the best I can.

              • Lou Jost says:

                In your comment above you have a link to Denis Noble’s eye article. He gives a nice example of how Darwinian evolution could be falsified, and how teleological causation is an empirical claim that could be confirmed.

                Yet ID guys rarely seem to bother to investigate these kinds of claims very deeply. If the claim is really true that the primitive vertebrate eye was pre-adapted to provide high-acuity and high-efficiency vision in later vertebrates, teleological causation could be demonstrated. Nobel prizes would be won. But no, people are content to mention it in passing to cast doubt on evolutionary theory. It is as if ID or teleology proponents don’t really take their hypotheses seriously.

                In this respect they are much like young-earth creationists, who all insist that standard geology is completely wrong, but never work to reach a consensus about the YEC ages of the geological column across the globe. Maybe these people are just so sure that they have the truth that they feel it is not worth working out the details to test their theories. Or maybe deep down they realize it is all bull, and prefer not to look too closely so as to preserve their beliefs.

            • Lou Jost says:

              Today I was reading one of my favorite blogs today, “The Giant Cuttlefish: thoughts on cephalopods, evolution, and the mind,” and learned about some neat kinds of scallop eyes:
              It immediately reminded me of Jon’s comment above: “If we ever did find a circuitous pathway including eyes adapted from hearing organs, secretory organs or tentacles (and the track record so far says we won’t)…”

              Better review that track record, Jon.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

                Good hit Lou. But soesn’t change the truth of what followed the conditional: “We would still be wrong to deny that ‘eyes are for seeing.'”

              • Lou Jost says:

                I don’t deny it, of course. I do deny that it adds anything to the conventional evolutionary description.

                You said “as far as I’m aware the cause and effect pathway of the camera eye has been entirely reconstructed from the final cause, “we find eyes that are for seeing”, since the entire biosphere, living or fossil, gives no examples of evidence of not-yet-eyes-for-seeing, whether that be in vertebrates, arthropods or molluscs. Hence the just-so stories about light sensitive pits at whatever.”

                In fact, the wide variety of actual evolutionary pathways taken can best be explained by recognizing that there was no final cause: each step was a purely local one via natural selection and accident, not aimed at making an eye somewhere down the road. Light-sensitive pits did not evolve because they were stepping-stones to some future state. Variations that were sensitive to light improved fitness.

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Lou wrote: “We only need genuine explanatory power. ”

    That is a revealing statement, Lou — with the key word being “genuine”. I can pretty much predict what you will pack into that word (repeatable demonstration of efficient causation), and as such it beautifully confirms Jon’s claim.

    You also wrote: …”this should give you a leg up in our understanding of the universe.”

    How do you know that many spiritual people don’t have exactly that? (a leg up on understanding the universe) Just because they may not squeeze their spirituality (Christian or otherwise) into a scientistic box for your analytical pleasure doesn’t mean their wider approach to life isn’t superior to yours. Note that I’m not trying to establish that all such things *are* superior approaches either, as many forms of spirituality may be far from truth, goodness, or health. But you continue to commit the error of demanding that religion be some monolithically perfect thing while being quite willing to patiently forgive science all its foibles and misteps whilst showcasing apparent successes.

    • Lou Jost says:

      “….You continue to commit the error of demanding that religion be some monolithically perfect thing…” No, I have not stressed the foibles of particular religions, at least not intentionally; my stress is on the lack of evidence for any of their truth claims.

      • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

        Lou wrote: …”my stress is on the lack of evidence for any of their truth claims.”

        i.e. lack of repeatable material efficient causes … a refrain beyond which you seem to have incurable blindness.

        But even allowing for that, the universal paintbrush in your phrase “any of their claims” is absurd. Religious people make all sorts of claims at all sorts of levels including even scientifically verifiable ones. They won’t all be wrong. Neither are they [even the non-scientific ones] all on equal footing as regards evidence.

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon, your example theological statement: “God directed the creation of all things” itself could (and I think has in other venues) lead to other interesting questions –the first being: how far and in what directions can we press this metaphor?

    The word “direct” could imply that other agents are being used in the actual production — think of a conductor directing an orchestra. The mediating (or “efficient”?) cause is the musicians. So how much freedom do the musicians exercise?

    If I understand your general approach to all this, though, the Potter metaphor reveals God directly crafting each detail — i.e. God not just as director but also as producer and technician. The living orchestral participants may not be robots or automatons, but their actions, mistakes, and even their rebellions are already subsumed into the unfolding composition. Would you accept such a metaphor in that state? Or if not, how would you put it?

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Merv

    Two main aspects to consider here:
    (1) Creation ex nihilo is exclusively God’s prerogative, for there was nothing apart from God to create. Linked to that, remember (as it’s easy to forget) that we believe in a Christological creation: “All things were made by him (the Λογος of God), and without him was not anything made that was made”. cf also Proverbs 8 on the wisdom of God, the sole companion of God in his work – which of course says more about the divine wisdom inherent in creation than the process itself. And in Isaiah 42, God’s claims as Creator are linked to the words, “I will not give my glory to another.” In fact that is a major theme of Isa 40-55.

    Note that in the many references to creation in Scripture, not once are angels mentioned as agents of creation – the most obvious delegation in biblical terms. Always it is described in terms of God’s own work. And so all the historical statements of faith I’ve looked at speak of God as “sole Creator”. It maybe that the “word of power” in Genesis 1 resonates with the idea of a monarch giving his absolute commands – but that is intended to show glory, not hierarchy (and of course, it’s associated with “making” words too). Indeed, the dabar (word) of God has its own special reference in the OT to the word that actually brings things into being, so kingship as such may not even be intended in Genesis.

    But (2) creation is also used many times for things in “present” time, which we know (and the Hebrews knew) to be mediated by physical causes – eg though babies may be be pretty miraculous and are said to be created by God, they are the result of natural generation. There is no absolute distinction between an original ex nihilo creation and the ongoing or occasional works mentioned in the Bible, so it would seem that secondary causes may, or may not, be used in creation (and so in evolution) – but that implies they are used instrumentally, not as semi-independent agents. No demiurges in Christianity.

    I’ve argued (to the point of tedium) that autonomy in a non-rational process makes no sense. But taking the easier case of angels, who are rational beings, then once again Scripture consistently makes them so much the obedient messengers of God that “Angel of God” and “God” are often interchangeable. So if they are used as willing servants, rather than delegates, how much more irrational beings and processes.

    That’s creation, as far as I can see from the biblical evidence. But your last paragraph more properly belongs to providence, rather than creation – though I admit the division between those is not easy. And I’d be happy to concur with the way you word it, for it includes such things as the fallibility of the material order (which is why the coming spiritual; order is intrinsically better even for the creatures), going right up to the good choices, and rebellion, of man and of angels.

    Of course, any metaphor used to describe that falls foul of the “puppet” accusation. So the idea of God writing a play in which he scripts the free actions of characters is helpful if you’re sympathetic and seeking understanding, but won’t convince the skeptical. The idea of God as the choreographer or conductor has merit too, giving more of an organic sense of creaturely or human liberty, but risks bum notes or stroppy brass players messing up the show (brass players being proverbially stroppy!).

    I’m sure I can’t think of a better metaphor, but if I did it would probably involve the idea that God’s purposes and natural/human puposes are operating at different levels, with our level being subsumed in his (because we exist in him). It’s not that his will constrains my will either always, or on occasions – but that they are just different, though analogous, things.

    If my days are in God’s hands, and it’s his will that I go to glory tomorrow, how much providential control does he have to have? If I slip on a particular fallen leaf and crack my skull (and similar events were God’s doing in the Bible), did he shift that leaf “coercively”, or does he oversee where they all go? I hope he doesn’t just trust to luck, because a lot hinges on it!

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Reply to Lou (15/12/2013 at 06:28 pm)

    I think my previous point was that none of those evolutionary pathways are more than speculation. Even brother scallop doesn’t have tentacles that evolved into camera eyes, but pretty cool camera eyes on tentacles. What we have, rather than what we might imagine there once were, are eyes-for-seeing.

    Unless you have a reference for bivalves with light-sensitive pits on their tentacles that you haven’t divulged, by any chance?

    • Lou Jost says:

      I wasn’t sure if you were denying the evolutionary history or just denying its explanation. Now it looks like you are denying that eyes evolved from simpler non-imaging organs. Is that what you are denying?

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        No – just that the eye as an organ for seeing cannot be extrapolated from cause and effect that hasn’t been observed. So in practice, even in the case of scallops, we start with the final cause (“Ohh – another instance of a camera eye”) and reconstruct possible efficient causes.

        As I said above, if we could follow a cause-effect chain, we’d still not have excluded final causation (every planned human artifact, after all, comes into being after that planning by cause and effect). But in practice, the only factual causes we have for eyes (discounting the purely developmental side, of course) are the final and formal. The efficient causes remain purely hypothetical.

        • Lou Jost says:

          The role of inference and deduction in science, as in daily life, blurs the distinction between the hypothetical and the directly-observed.

          We do have a non-teleological hypothetical mechanism that could have produced eyes (natural selection acting on different kinds of random variation). We also have some genetic and biochemical evidence for the paths taken in any particular case.

          If evolution of the eye is non-teleological, constraints due to an early choice of pathway (constraints that would not have made much difference to the original non-camera-eye function) might interfere with future camera-eye function. The structure of our retina (blind spot, nerves and blood vessels in front of photoreceptors) seems to show evidence of this. So the final cause is a worse explanation for the actual designs of eyes than the goal-less explanation in terms of a non-teleological causal chain.

          By the way, Michael Denton’s claim (which you link to above) that the human inverted retina is actually an optimal design is not widely accepted; see
          for one rebuttal.

          I know you don’t think designs have to be optimal, or that we have correctly identified the functions being optimized. But the messy, history-constrained structure of the eye does seem to be better-explained by non-teleological evolutionary explanations than by effective teleological ones. I suppose you could always claim that the teleology is so weak that it can’t overcome all the accidents of history, and that is why we can’t detect it. One could then argue about which theory has the burden of proof….of course I think the explanation that posits unknown entities and violates present-day physics has the burden of proof, as it would in any other subject.

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